Why is look used as a transitive verb in the phrase look you in the eye?

I checked look in Cambridge Dictionaries and found only an intransitive look, not a transitive one.

  • Is it transitive here? What makes you think so? :)
    – Kris
    May 17, 2014 at 13:34
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    You is used after look. Is it obvious?
    – Louis Liu
    May 17, 2014 at 13:45
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    I think that this is a remnant of the old dative case, specifically dative of possession: i.e. look you in the eye is a different way to say look in your eye.
    – Anonym
    May 17, 2014 at 14:14
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    @WS2 In OE, the accusative and dative cases were fully separate; come ME, they had merged into a single oblique case, which was used for both purposes. We still have this 'dual case', so to speak, with ditransitive verbs: i.e. I gave him it and I give it to him are equivalent--but otherwise the dative application of the oblique case has fallen out of use. It otherwise remains only in a few set phrases, such as woe is me (i.e. woe is to me, I am the recipient of woe), methinks (i.e. it seems to me), and, probably, the one that the asker has asked about.
    – Anonym
    May 17, 2014 at 16:13
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    If you don't like 'He looked her in the eye', I wouldn't like to imagine what you think of 'He looked daggers at her'. Unless you want to take these constructions right outside the scope of normal analysis (just slapping the label 'idiom' on them, which means abnormal grammar is almost to be expected), you have to accept that your dictionary doesn't cover all bases. AHD, Collins, and especially RHK Webster's are better here. May 17, 2014 at 19:47

5 Answers 5


I don't understand why you guys think this question so complex. There is no need to label a word transitive or intransitive if anyone can clearly understand what a sentence means without ambiguousness; hence, it means that it is also grammatically correct.

Let's look over the questioned sentence again : “look you in the eye”.

Can you figure out by reading it that there is another way to interpret the sentence? Definitely not, and it is understandable enough because there is no ambiguousness in it.

What I mean is that if a sentence is fixed to be interpreted in one way, it is both grammatically correct and acceptable, needless to think of whether a verb is used transitively or intransitively.

  • I can see at least two interpretations of "look you in the eye" depending upon context, more if you allow dialect variations. So the "Definitely not" in your third paragraph is not correct.
    – Chenmunka
    Aug 7, 2018 at 17:40
  • @Chenmunka then, could you please write down the two interpretations you have figured out? As far as I know, there's no interpretation other than that, though I can interpret it in a different way, but it doesn't quite make sense in the different perspective, which is why I answered this question like this.
    – GKK
    Apr 9, 2019 at 6:29

Although it may appear to be, look in to look you in the eye is not transitive, nor is it the word that behaves oddly in the sentence. Rather, it is the you that behaves oddly.

In Old English there were four or five grammatical cases--depending on how you reckon them up--for which (most) nouns and adjectives inflected: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental. The dative and instrumental cases were already conflating by the time of the earliest written records, however, and before long the accusative case was likening itself to the dative, such that, come Middle English, there were only nominative, accusative, and genitive inflections--but the accusative case continued to be used in a dative manner.

In Modern English, we only represent grammatical case in our pronouns: I, we, he, she, they are subjective (nominative), me, us, him, her, them objective (accusative and dative), and my, our, his, her, their possessive (genitive). Apart from those, we tend to do the job of grammatical case either by a word's position in a sentence or by a preposition: i.e. by the sword (preposition + noun) is the new way to say þon sweorde (noun in the instrumental case).

Nevertheless, there are still some stragglers from the Old English cases, which, despite having been stripped of their inflections, still behave the same. One such straggler is the indirect object of ditransitive verbs:

I gave him it.

I gave it to him.

In the former, him is a straggler from the Old English dative case: it denotes the recipient of something. In the latter, to him serves this dative function, despite being accomplished by means of a preposition instead; it is, effectively, the 'new way' to say it. As I have said in my comments above, woe is me (woe is to me; I am the recipient of woe) is another such example.

So, to look you in the eye may be made to comply with the 'new way' by giving it a preposition:

To look to you in the eye.

But this sounds off, which is because the dative case was sometimes used where we would expect the genitive: i.e. it was sometimes used to denote possession. If we keep this in mind, we may recast the sentence as follows:

To look in your eye(s).

Which not only sounds natural but also represents the exact meaning of the phrase to look you in the eye.


In the comments of the original post some people have been comparing to look (you) in the eye to to look daggers at. I want to begin by saying that I do not know how the latter idiom ever came to be, but I can assure you that the two did not come about by way of the same process. If I had to guess, I would say that the daggers in to look daggers at were an adverbial genitive: i.e. a noun in the genitive case used as an adverb. Similar constructions include: I work nights, I work days, I always eat breakfast, I sometimes eat breakfast, I will do it anyways, etc.

Note that the adverbial genitive is going out of fashion, and as such some adverbial genitives are being re-analyzed as plural nouns used adverbially: hence adverbs like sometime in let's do that sometime.

  • The genitive forms you list are more commonly treated as determiners (rather than pronouns) in Modern English; I'd just get rid of them and leave it at the subjective and objective if I were you. And regardless of how the daggers historically came to be, they are now quite firmly a direct object—if you play around a little and get creative, you can easily replace them by another object (“She couldn't find any daggers, so she looked a pen knife and a screwdriver at him instead” or something along those lines). May 23, 2014 at 18:19

Look was used as a transitive verb with the same definition many years ago, but it is now obsolete in that manner. Now it is intransitive, needing a preposition in order to show what exactly you are looking at. However, in modern informal speech, look is used transitively very often (although that doesn't mean it's grammatically correct).

Informal speech is usually spoken quick. You want to get the point across in an easy to understand, short and snappy manner. "I looked him in the eye" is short and sweet in informal speech, compared to "I looked at him in the eye."

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    “I looked at him in the eye” is certainly no more ‘correct’ than “I looked him in the eye”—rather the opposite: it is clumsy, awkward, and to me at least also quite ungrammatical. May 18, 2014 at 1:18
  • I am a year late on this, but I'd like to rebut the argument in my opponent's answer. Look was, and still is, a transitive verb, but transitive look doesn't mean the same thing as look at; rather, it's meaning is closer to seem, appear to be: e.g. he looked a fool means he appeared to be a fool, he made himself look like a fool, not he looked at a fool.
    – Anonym
    Jun 26, 2015 at 3:11

I checked both Merriam Webster and the online dictionary.com, and both listed transitive meanings of look. Here are some other examples:

  • He looked an idiot when he wore that silly hat.
  • She doesn't look eighteen.

To me all the examples have a slightly formal, or perhaps old fashioned color to them. But they are all perfectly valid and understandable.

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    Those two examples both use look more like a linking verb than a transitive verb, so they're not very good for illustrating the point. Edwin's “He looked daggers at her” from the comment section above is a better example that is undeniably and unmistakably transitive. May 18, 2014 at 1:33
  • Obviously eighteen is not an object in "look eighteen".
    – Louis Liu
    May 18, 2014 at 14:23

"Look something in the eyes" is an idiom. Probably comes from an older transitive definition of "look".

Etymonline says it comes from Olde English and lists the origin of some idioms with "look" but not "look X in the eyes" but anyway that's a better start than what I had here originally.


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    Unlike look in English, regarder is quite commonly transitive, so the parallel is not really particularly remarkable. May 23, 2014 at 17:12
  • Sure it is. French happened before English, that supports my historical theory.
    – McGurk
    May 23, 2014 at 17:51
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    Utter, complete nonsense. French did not ‘happen’ (if you could even talk about languages ‘happening’) before English. The fact remains that look is normally intransitive except in this idiom and expressions like ‘looking daggers at someone’, while regarder is predominantly transitive. Thus, it is not remarkable that the corresponding French construction is transitive. May 23, 2014 at 17:55
  • Ya, you're right, and anyway French has nothing to do with it, just an interesting coincidence that the two line up in this one case
    – McGurk
    May 23, 2014 at 22:57
  • Regarder kind of means look AND watch, huh?
    – McGurk
    May 23, 2014 at 23:04

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